Human Imagination: It All Started with the Lion Man

The most important thing to remember about prehistoric humans
is that they were insignificant animals with no more impact on their environment
than gorillas, fireflies, or jellyfish.”

–Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

How is it that a band of unexceptional animals wandering the savannah in East Africa became the rulers of the world? I’ve always been fascinated by this question, and have admired the efforts of archaeologists delving into the earth for answers. It’s a complex answer no doubt, but one of the qualities that must have made it possible is human imagination. When did humans become aware, creative and mindful, and where’s the proof?

When tangible proof was discovered, it came in the form of an ivory statuette found buried in a limestone cave in southwest Germany. The twelve-inch figurine, which has the body of a man and the head of a lion, is known as the “Lion Man of the Hohlenstein Stadel Caves.” Although not very catchy, the cumbersome name belies the incredible significance of the find.

After 40,000 years buried in cave mud, it’s surprising that the fragile mammoth ivory survived at all. Archaeologist Robert Wetzel discovered the original fragments in 1939, then he promptly marched off to war and it got stuffed in a drawer for 30 years. It took another 40 years years, but after repeated excavations and a painstaking restoration the astonishing importance of the find was finally realized.

The completed statue has an ancient patina and rustic appeal, but it takes an expert eye and a bit of the archaeological backstory to truly appreciate its astounding significance for our knowledge of human history. For, as Harari says in Sapiens, This is one of the first indisputable examples of art, and probably religion, and the ability of the human mind to imagine things that don’t really exist.

Think about the full implications of the Lion Man for a moment and what it represents. Forty thousand years ago one of the first human artists, living among cave-dwelling hunter-gatherers, created a mental picture and then carved something that didn’t exist in nature: a fusion of man and animal.

The BBC Series Living with the Gods calls it an “imaginative leap,” and even though we know when it happened, we can’t answer why or what it meant to our distance ancestors. Was the Lion Man a deity, a benign protector, or a spirit guide? Regardless of the true meaning, for these early humans it was tangible proof of an intangible idea … and the beginnings of belief.

“Homo sapiens rules the world because it is the only animal that can
believe in things that exist purely in its own imagination,
such as gods, states, money and human rights.”
–Yuval Noah Harari

The Lion Man (Lowenmensch) fom the Museum Ulm website. http://www.loewenmensch.de/lion_man.html

From the top of the pyramid, our modest beginnings are so far in the misty past that it’s easy to take for granted how far we’ve come. But our ability to visualize things in our mind, both good and bad, is one of the game-changing talents that made us human … and the Lion Man was the beginning.

Good Health and Happy Trails,
James

P.S. The seed of the idea for this post came from Yuval Noah Harari’s excellent, and wildly popular book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. There’s a reason it was so successful, and for anyone interested in the story of human history and how we got where we are, it’s highly recommended.

Photo Credits: 1. Bradshaw Foundation  2. Dagmar Hollmann  3. Thilo Parg  4. State Office for Cultural Heritage Baden-Wurttemberg. Photo by Yvonne Muehleis 5. Museum Ulm   6. Ulm Museum

Author: gallivance.net

We're Terri and James Vance - high school sweethearts who went on to international careers and became world nomads. Today, 65 countries later, we're still traveling ... and still in love. Check out Our Story for more of the backstory at gallivance.net.

36 thoughts

  1. Fascinating bit of history.
    I have often wondered if perhaps these ancient people weren’t creating art just for the sake of creating art and not for some religious reason; e.g., to worship or to attract their prey. Similarly, is it primitive or just their version of what we would call “modern art.”

    1. Ray, scientists can make educated guesses in an effort to understand the motivation for early art, but that’s really all they are – guesses. I’m sure that the reasons varied throughout time and with different groups, but like you, I suspect some of it was art for art’s sake. Some of it may be like initials carved in tree bark saying: “I was here.” Interesting stuff whatever the reason. ~James

    1. Darlene, we heard about Jacquie from another of our blogging friends Liesbet over at https://www.roamingabout.com/. In fact, I bought the first book in one of her recent series. As you know, well researched historical fiction is a great way to learn about a topic, and having a story line to fit the facts into make it much easier to digest than dry textbooks.

      As to the lion-man, I’m not sure how I’ve never heard of the discovery. In all my traveling around and my interest in the subject, it’s amazing that it took me this long to hear about the piece … but there you are. It truly is fascinating to me, and is an astounding milestone in human history. Thanks for the link to Jacquie’s website. I’ll check it out. ~James

      1. This is the first time I have heard of the Lion Man. There is always something to learn, thankfully. I love how the blogging world connects us all and is part of the learning. Thanks!

    1. Laura, I don’t know the entire story about Wetzel and the discovery, but what I do know may answer your question. Apparently, he made the discovery a couple of days before the end of the summer digging season, and because the statue was broken into pieces, he didn’t know or appreciate, what he really had. And unfortunately for him, he went into the army very soon after. What I don’t know is whether he did or didn’t come out of the war, but in Germany at that time, archaeology was the last thing on everyone’s mind. ~James

    1. Thanks Shelley. If you like this sort of thing, you’ll enjoy “Sapiens.” Harari’s book has enough science to make it interesting without overkill, and he gathers data from lots of different disciplines to make points that I had never considered. He also spends time at the end of the book discussing humanity’s impact on the planet, past and present, and what it might mean going forward. Let me know how you like it. ~James

  2. James, we are lucky to have proof as your pic of the Lion Man suggests. The creative process that an artist goes through to make an art work will have have some good speculated answers. One for instance is the artist had to have taken “time out” from instinctual functions to just observe visual phenomenon. Not for any other activity just noticing patterns of light shade, forms.

    1. Thanks for the comment Michael and for dropping by the blog. In reading the details of the lion-man and his history I discovered that experts guess that it took roughly 400 hours of work to create the statue. That much “time out” from hunting for food is an important indicator of the importance the piece had to the artist, and by extension the tribe, because they had to be providing food while she, or he worked. It had to be an enormously important turning point for many reasons. ~James

  3. I’ve read that particular book by Yuval Noah Harari as well. Not only does it echo some of the thoughts I’ve been having for years, it also gave me new insights on us and our relationship with the planet we call home. I have yet to read his other books though.

    1. Bama, I’ve also read the second book in the series called “Homo Deus.” There’s a bit of overlap between the two, but Homo Deus is more of a look forward instead of back. The book makes some predictions about the continuing evolution of man and its impact on the planet. I enjoyed Sapiens more, but the second book is worth a read if the subject intrigues you. ~James

  4. I’ve heard that it was our high protein diet that got us moving forward. Creativity is just innate in our genes. If we have our basic needs covered then we have the time for contemplation and creativity.
    Leslie

    1. Leslie, I hadn’t read about a high protein diet, but it’s certainly hard to be creative when you’re hungry. But your point about having the basic needs met is a good one. Interestingly, I’ve read in a couple of places that once humans discovered farming they had more food (but not always reliable due to crop failures/weather), but they had to work harder and longer to provide for themselves. ~James

      1. The hunt wasn’t terribly reliable either, and you probably know what it’s like to fish. I think when we moved to a high protein diet the brain increased in size too.
        Leslie

  5. Mark and I have Sapiens in our possession. My father-in-law is an avid reader and book purchaser and we bear the fruits sometimes. Mark started it, but I will savior it whenever we have heaps of time again. I think it’s quite a commitment to read; not your usual page turner. 🙂

    Fascinating blog post, James. I never made the connection between early humans’ sense of imagination and world religions… Interesting!

    1. Thanks Liesbet. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. This is one of those post ideas that I’ve had in mind forever, and just now pulled together.

      The connection with religion that you mention is one of the Aha! moments that I had when I read this book. I deliberately didn’t say much about religion for fear that it would take the conversation down an unintended path, but the reality of man’s creation of gods (and not the reverse) is still there. Fascinating.

      And “Sapiens” isn’t a page turner for sure, but it’s worth the effort. With books like this I have to take them in small bites, which gives me time to assimilate and digest what I’ve read. I think you’ll enjoy it, and hey, you already own it so you have that going for you. 🙂 ~James

    1. Thanks Alison. If you’re curious about the “human animal” and how we came to be the way we are, this is the book for you. I enjoy scientific writers that can meld data from lots of different sources and make points that I’ve never considered.

      I know that you’re into ecology and earth issues, so you’ll enjoy that he also makes some strong arguments for the problems we humans are creating for ourselves as well as what needs to change going forward. So I encourage you to give the book a try. ~James

  6. I see what you mean, James and Terri, about the concept of human imagination being more recent. Thank you for recommending “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.”

    Your first question is very thought-provoking. And “…rulers of the world” may be a grey concept and up to interpretation. As I read further you do open up my eyes to “..the full implications of the Lion Man…”. Thank you for sharing a fascinating post and I greatly appreciate the photos.🙂 Erica

    1. Erica, I must admit to a bit of hyperbole with that “rulers of the world” comment. The idea was to emphasize how far we’ve come from being just one of the herd. If we continue abusing the planet the way we have been we’ll see who the rulers really are.

      And honestly, I’m still astounded that there’s actually physical evidence of this leap in human abilities. We’re a complex animal, but discoveries like the lion-man reinforces the idea that much of our brain power comes down to simple things. I’m glad you enjoyed the post and photos. You can thank Terri for the photos. She’s our one-person graphics department. ~James

  7. James and Terri – 30 years in a drawer and then a pain-staking puzzle to put together…the act of following up on this discovery is also proof of the imaginings of humans! Thanks for the post – Susan

    1. Susan, apparently this sort of thing is more common than you might think with archaeologists as well as paleontologists. They find something of interest but don’t really know are appreciate exactly what it is at the time, and then somebody is rummaging through a dusty drawer years later and makes an important discovery. And to add to the “proof of imaginings” factor, when it was initially reconstructed they had to glue together 220 pieces to create the statue. So, for many reasons, the lion-man is lucky to be around at all. ~James

  8. I’m fascinated by the work done by archaeologists and historians. I just don’t have the patience to put together shards to form a vessel or a Lion Man or anything else, I guess. Bert, on the other hand, likes to work puzzles, so he might be more adept. Your post is intriguing. I appreciate the recommendation for further reading, and, as always, I look forward to your next post.

    1. Rusha, I love the results of the efforts of archaeologists, but most of the grunt work is too exacting for me as well. I’ve had a few friends that have volunteered on digs, and it all sounds like knee-crushing drudgery to me. And this goes double for caves like the one where the lion-man was found.

      But thank goodness for their efforts, and this discovery is a good example. I found the implications astounding and it’s difficult to overstate the importance for our knowledge of human history. ~James

  9. Peggy and I have both read and appreciated “Sapiens,” James and Terri. Peggy’s first response was this is what they should be using in high school history classes. Similar to Lion Man, petroglyphs often reflect the wonderful imagination of ancient peoples. It would be fascinating to do more than guess at the meaning. Very interesting post. –Curt

    1. Curt, funny you should mention petroglyphs because the next post in this series will be about … petroglyphs. I find ancient human history fascinating and the art that’s a part of it. Petroglyphs in particular are intriguing because they’re part of the indigenous cultures before the arrival of Europeans with their overbearing Christian influence. ~James

      1. Peggy and I have been to many sites over the years, James. Like you, we find petroglyphs fascinating. They range from realistic to abstract and from sophisticated to simple. But never boring. Have you ever been to the three Rivers site in New Mexico. Our favorite. I look forward to your post. –Curt

      2. Curt, until our last trip out to west I didn’t realize how widespread petroglyph sites were in this part of NM. Unfortunately, we didn’t get down that far south, but I’ll put it on the list for future trips. Something tells me that with Covid, we’ll be doing more US vs foreign travel. ~James

      3. Be sure to contact me when you head there, James. I’ll have some suggestions on treasures you might miss. Our plans are pretty much US oriented as well. Right now we are wandering along the Oregon Trail in Casper, Wyoming. –Curt

  10. It is a beautiful artifact – and wow, 40,000 years ago ‘the artists’ followed their artistic whims, I suppose while the others were hunting and gathering? I chuckle at the thought, and most likely the others marveled at their ability to create whimsical effigies from rock and bone and ivory. How many people today could create something like that with only primitive tools? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to go back in time and be a voyeur and watch?!

    Here in Ecuador one small artifact shattered during the 7.8 earthquake, and it stayed in a box for a few years before I attempted to reconstruct it. I have lots of patience, but found myself quite frustrated – quite often!

    If I saw the Lion Man’s many fragments, I might have shrugged and tossed them… it’s amazing that it has been resurrected and has a powerful effect on those lucky enough to know his story. Thank you for this – and for the petroglyph post as well!

    1. Lisa, it’s especially meaningful to get an opinion on this post from a talented artist like you. This statue is fascinating to me for so many reasons. There’s the purely artistic aspects of a “human animal” making the transition to having the ability to envision something imaginary, and there’s also the practical side. In my research I found that, with the tools and materials available, it’s estimated that this piece took approximately 400 hours to complete. Just consider that: it took fifty eight-hour days (daylight carving only of course) to finish. And all this time, the other members of the clan were hunting/gathering to provide food for the artist – a good indicator of the importance no doubt.

      And the artifact you assembled sounds intriguing as well. I can imagine that it was frustrating, and rewarding at the same time. Thanks for your comment and take care of yourself. ~James

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